By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
Chuck Knight listened to his fellow Viper Militia defendants as they took turns discussing a plea agreement offered by government prosecutors. The 12 alleged conspirators and 11 of their attorneys sat crammed into a small room on the sixth floor of the Federal Building. They hardly fit around the room's table, and the humidity in the room had risen noticeably.
Rick Walker said he was dying.
Walker, the former leader of the militia, had fared worst in the four months since the group's arrest made national headlines. A diabetic, Walker had already suffered one heart attack and alarming weight loss during his incarceration.
And unless the rest of them joined him in accepting the government's offer of a plea agreement, Walker told them, he would never survive a prison sentence he expected to be very long.
As each defendant in turn spoke, there was little discussion of the evidence in the case. Beginning with the defendants facing the most serious charges, each militia member agreed that taking the government's offer beat the severe penalties they would face if found guilty in a trial.
Some hesitated. Chris Floyd, at 21 the youngest member of the militia and one of the least involved, complained that he couldn't resign himself to a prison stay. He couldn't afford to spend a year or more away from his young family, he told them.
Floyd then stepped out of the room with his attorney and returned a few moments later.
"Yeah, I'll do it," he said, agreeing with the rest.
Others left the room momentarily to consult their lawyers, but eventually, 11 agreed to take the government's offer.
It was Chuck Knight's turn to speak.
If Knight went along with the rest, he would plead guilty to a crime he does not believe he committed and spend two years in prison. If he balked, however, and elected to go to trial, he would ruin the deal for the rest of them. And if he were found guilty in that trial--which is what his attorney had told him was likely--he would face up to seven years in prison. Others could spend decades locked up.
Most important, Knight knew that his fiancee and fellow defendant Donna Williams supported the plea agreement. And if he ruined it for her, he was afraid he would lose her forever.
Suffering an acute bout of loyalty, Knight agreed to accept the government's plea agreement.
But in the days following that meeting, while under house arrest, Knight would wrestle with his conscience.
He was confined, when he wasn't working, to a modest north Phoenix house owned by a friend; he'd stayed at the house since being released from custody on July 13. Seven of the defendants remained in jail while awaiting trial, but Knight and four others had been freed, at least temporarily.
Knight's comfortable surroundings belied the truth: He couldn't leave the house without notifying court workers. Under one of his boots, he wore an ankle device that he couldn't remove. It allowed police to track him if he attempted to flee.
But he didn't want to flee. He only wanted to see Williams, his fiancee, and discuss his doubts about accepting the government's offer.
His release orders, however, prohibited him from contacting her. He couldn't contact any of the other defendants, or members of any militia, and he could not possess weapons. He could, however, entertain visitors and friends, who would, over the next few days, urge him to reconsider his decision to accept the plea agreement.
His dilemma was overwhelming. Should he be a good soldier and take his punishment to ease his fellow Vipers' lots? Or should he stick up for himself, to the detriment of his comrades, including his future wife? Something had to give.
Something gave on December 2, when U.S. Magistrate Barry Silverman altered the terms of release and agreed to let Knight and Williams have contact. Beginning that night, the two of them would spend every allowable hour with each other.
Knight learned that Williams was resolute--she had decided to take the government's offer and spend no more than 18 months in prison. But she made it clear to Knight that whatever he decided to do, it wouldn't affect their relationship.
Still, Knight wavered, swayed by his attorney Tom Hoidal, who pressed him to accept the plea bargain. Even if he didn't intend to break the law, he was told, the prosecution could show that the letter of the law had been violated. Accepting the plea, Knight was told, would save him years in prison.
But Knight was convinced that his role in the Vipers' activities had been harmless. He had never handled explosives, never fired an automatic weapon, never advocated hurting anyone or destroying anything. To the contrary, he had spoken out against such acts.
He knew he had done nothing that warranted his going to prison--and he felt certain a jury would agree.
On December 6, Knight read the actual wording of the proposed plea agreement. It shocked him. For the first time, the full import of admitting guilt became clear.
Four days later, he told his attorney he couldn't sign the document.
News that Knight planned to fight the government's charges rather than plead guilty--thereby jeopardizing the other defendants' opportunity to accept the deal--spread quickly among the defendants and their families. Angry parents and other family members called Knight to berate him, telling him that he was sending his friends to their doom.